The 8 Best Games for Your Backyard

The Fourth of July is just around the corner (for my US readers. Well actually, it’s still July 4th for everyone using the Gregorian calendar, but… go with it). For many of us this means large gatherings of friends and family, often outdoors. While one of the more memorable Independence Days took place at my friend Scooter’s farm in Riley, Ohio and involved a home fireworks display and the phrase “which end you reckon points up?” – with predictable results – you can’t spend the whole day shooting fireworks at bystanders. In that spirit, here’s a list of some of my favorite lawn/yard games (in no particular order):

8. Croquet. Croquet is awesome, but it does require a fairly level, open stretch of yard. Growing up, we played in our front yard. It was level, but three mature maple trees and their roots made play a little challenging. There was a definite home court advantage. One of MJ’s colleagues hosts an annual croquet tournament, for which participants are required to show up in their croquet whites. I am not this fancy.


7. Kickball. I’ve always loved kickball. It’s like a sport designed for those of us lacking the necessary coordination for tee-ball. There are actually adult kickball leagues, which I feel like I should mock but I secretly wish we had one in Culpeper.

6. Cornhole. It’s actually not a favorite of mine, it’s just on the list because I’m hoping someone from Virginia will help me understand WHY cornhole is this big exciting deal here. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s like poor man’s skeeball. I don’t get it.


(Why yes, those are wedding themed cornhole boards. If that’s your thing, these are made by etsy seller Style My Corntoss. And they’re right here in VA, because cornhole’s a thing here? Sure)

5. Bocce. I grew up in Rhode Island, where the old Italian and Portugese men played some pretty hardcore bocce. If you doubt my home state was serious about the sport, allow me to point out that my brother’s wedding reception was at the restaurant called The Bocce Club. For real. Anyhow, bocce is one of those backyard games that can be as informal or as intense as you want. If your grass is nice and short you can play on the lawn, but if you’re a hardcore afficionado you can install a regulation bocce court in your backyard complete with the compacted oyster shell surface. Play is simple; think curling for those of us who hate winter.

4. Wiffleball. The other day I came across this article on the history of wiffleball. Did you know that it originated in Fairfield, Connecticut? David Mullany sought to create a lightweight ball that curved and broke easily when thrown, to keep his kids from hurting themselves trying to throw big league pitches with little league bodies. In a bit of trivia that speaks to the stereotype of New Englanders as cheapskates, they left out the “H” in “whiff” because if they ever needed to buy a sign, it was one less letter. Apparently folks are super competitive about their wiffleball, which seems a little excessive at first but look at this video!

3. Volleyball/badminton. Are they the same game? Of course not. But if you own the net you probably bought the set that includes a volleyball, four badminton racquets, and a couple of shuttlecocks. Both of these games are an absolute blast, although Top Gun really set an impossible standard for the rest of us guys. I do not look like that when I play volleyball.

2. Lawn darts. I’m not talking about the ones you can buy today with the safe, soft foam tips with a weight buried discreetly in the projectile. I grew up with the ones that got banned and they were the best. Satisfyingly heavy, the “thok” of that steel rod impaling itself in the hard, baked earth of a summer day was incredibly gratifying.

lawn darts vintage

1. Horseshoes. As a charcoal snob, every time I grill I’m faced with 20-30 minutes of wait time while the charcoal briquettes get going. If I’m feeling inspired I’ll weed or prune or address random tasks around the yard. More often than not, though, I toss horseshoes. Horseshoes is one of those games where it doesn’t matter how horrible you are. It’s still kind of fun.

These are among my favorite games that I played growing up, and still dabble in occasionally. Have I missed anything? What’s your favorite backyard game?



Winter Work: The Truth About Discounts

I’ve talked before about what landscape projects can be done in the winter in the Virginia – Maryland – DC area. The question I often get is, can this job be done cheaper because the landscape contractor is looking for winter work? The answer is: sometimes. But don’t bet on it.

The simple reason for this is productivity. Think about the last time you stopped at the gas station on a cold, windy winter day. You probably fumbled with the gas cap, fumbled with the pump, and fumbled with your credit card. Now think about being out there all day long, cutting block or hanging joists. You just can’t move as efficiently in cold weather as you can on a sunny, seventy degree day. The days are shorter, too, so while a normal crew day in summer may be ten hours (including travel time) you don’t get as long a work day in winter.

The fact of the matter is, companies love winter work because it’s a way to keep the employees working so they can pay their bills, and it brings revenue in for the business. Profit margins are thinner, though, because most companies don’t mark winter work way up to compensate for lower productivity. We just got 5″ of snow, and the guys will be back on site tomorrow to continue demolishing a wood retaining wall for one of my projects. The owner of the company has locked up all the gas and electric saws until the snow melts. He’s paying them the extra hours it’ll take to disassemble the wall by hand because he doesn’t want someone getting hurt while using power tools on a slick site. He’s not charging the homeowner more; it’s just a cost of doing business in the winter.

So, it’s possible that you’ll see a small discount offered, just to keep the employees working through the winter. I’d be leery of someone offering fire sale prices, though, as that may be a sign they’re not great about knowing their numbers – and that often comes back to bite the client.

Some Must-Have Tools

Spring is right around the corner, which means it’ll be time for spring cleanups. Over the last year, I’ve invested in a few tools that make the process a lot easier. There are areas where one can save money, but I’m a firm believer that professional tools are important for professional results.

First is my favorite edging shovel ever, the King of Spades. Your reaction may be similar to MJ’s: “Eighty bucks for a shovel? Are you nuts?!” We used them at most of the landscape companies I’ve worked for, and once you’ve used them it’s hard to go back. The handle is lightweight aluminum, but the blade itself is steel. It comes from the factory with a pretty decent edge, but you can really put a great, sharp edge on the blade whenever necessary. In fact, that was part of the days’ procedure during mulching season: while I was loading the trucks with mulch, the junior guys sat at the bench grinders and sharpened all the shovels. The King of Spades cuts a beautifully deep and sharp bed edge; it’s also an excellent tool for digging transplants, dividing tough perennials, and dozens of other landscape tasks.

I also love my soil knife.  Mine’s a little different than the one I linked to, most notably because of the Day-Glo Orange handle (I rely on neon colors to keep my tool replacement costs reasonable). If you’re planting bulbs, annuals, 4″ perennials, or groundcovers- anything too small for a spade- there’s nothing faster. It’s handy for dividing perennials as well.

Wheelbarrows are another worthwhile place to splurge. I bought a cheap one at Lowe’s when we first bought the house. It has a plastic hopper and wood handles, and it is really flimsy. I hate feeling like I’m going to break my tools just by using them. I now buy all-steel wheelbarrows with metal handles. I’m abusing the heck out of my current favorite, and it seems like it’ll last forever. The flat-free tire is the best thing ever, too. You never notice your tire is flat until you go to move a wheelbarrow full to the top with super-loose concrete.

We have a rule at our house: no tool purchases until there’s a valid reason for it. That’s what I love about what I do- there is ALWAYS a valid reason for new tools!

Compost Updates

First of all, I’ve named the compost pet Composta Heep.  We like Thadd because he immediately got the Imogen Heep reference. Second, today was the big flip. I decided bin #1 was full enough, so it was time to fork it all over into bin #2. I’ll continue adding fresh material to #1, while I allow #2 to cook undisturbed except for frequent turnings. So how’s the compost look?

It’s not as far along as I’d like- not surprising, given the cold weather- but good stuff is happening. It mostly has a “good earthy” smell, with the exception of a few pockets that clearly got compressed and were cooking anaerobically. The pile was quite warm in the middle, too. I may get my thermophilic pile yet. I was particularly pleased with the worms. Considering that it’s February, there were a lot of fat, happy worms crawling around the warmth in the bottom half of the pile. This one must be a good 8 to 10 inches long:


That’s right- not only was I rooting around in decomposing green waste, oohing and ahhing- I ran to the truck to get the camera. Maybe this is why we never get hit up to buy girl scout cookies. Anyhow, the pile is now fluffy and cooking away in bin #2.


Given the dimensions of the bin, that’s an honest cubic yard of cooking compost. I’m glad we’ve been doing it; especially since we cook a lot of vegetarian food, it’s amazing how quickly the compost bucket needs taken out. Not only does it give us a good sense of what we’re keeping out of the waste stream, but we know we need to cook more if we’re not filling the bucket!